Built around a solid thriller idea, and unfurled with tremendous energy, “The Guest List” offers a quick read with little ongoing punch. When guests assemble for a bang-up wedding on a storm-struck remote island off the Irish coast, secrets boil over the top and murder eventuates. Told with great panache by Lucy Foley, a writer with promise, the action is related from numerous points of view, and it’s soon clear that barely a single soul is not keeping secrets. The different characters are well delineated, though with surprisingly little depth, the plot is paced out well, and “The Guest List” can be recommended as an engaging one-sitting read. All that said, the whodunnit outcome springs out as a fizzer and the entire exercise is suffused with a James-Patterson-like sheen.
“Staged,” a six-part season of brief episodes about actors in lockdown, could only have been conceived in lockdown (by Phil Glynn and Simon Evans, who also writes and directs) and only with superb improvisers like Martin Sheen and David Tennant. That Tennant and Sheen are themselves friends helps, for the pair riff off each other about mock competitiveness and insecurities. The storyline is gossamer thin: a budding producer/director tries to get the two stars to rehearse an old Italian play during lockdown, and various other stars (Samuel Jackson, Judy Dench) butt in. Cleverly, the scenes play out as Zoom sessions interposed by footage of pandemic emptiness. The interplay between Tennant and Sheen is magical, often profane, and razor sharp. All in all, Staged is a Coronavirus boon, one to be spaced out and savored.
Jonathan Lethem veers all over the literary genre landscape, always has, and he forever runs the risk of alienating his rapt fans. His previous novel, The Feral Detective left me rather nonplussed, so I hoped “The Arrest,” another switchback turn to the dystopia genre, would restore my faith. Fortunately it does, although the first few chapters are genuinely mystifying. The chapters themselves are short snippets, sometimes only a page long, and the book’s central character, Sandy Duplessis, is a scatty, mild mess, hardly a compelling narrative focus. But Lethem is a superb stylist (albeit in many different styles) and quickly one becomes absorbed in Sandy’s woozy worldview. The storyline is almost daft: after “the Arrest,” a global event that turns off nearly all technology, Sandy is comfortably numb in a rural Maine community that seems to be waiting for apocalypse, when his old movie producer buddy, an outre bullshit personality, arrives in a nuclear-powered digging machine. Throw in Sandy’s sister who once was ambiguously involved with the buddy, and the plot aches with foreboding but also crackles with Sandy’s life journey. Part dystopia, part satire, part examination of love and friendship, The Arrest is an odd fish novel that compels, a memorable peek into a man’s heart and soul. Heartily recommended.
A most unlikely minor miracle. Spy the cover of a sharp-eyed but older woman emblazoned with a title of “Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life” in a book shop, and you’d be forgiven for dismissing this as a lame How-To full of platitudes. Luckily, when I spotted this book, I was in the know, for I’d soaked up Twyla Tharp’s astringent, vital advice bible for writers and other creatives, The Creative Habit, back in 2006. Tharp is an iconic choreographer, so both her books come from the world of dance but her message in both books, which is that it’s all about hard work and discipline, transcend her world. Keep It Moving offers twelve robust chapters of advice from Tharp, pitched at my age and older (she is over 70), and each chapter includes a set of physical exercises (“Squirm,” “Jump for Joy,” “marking your day,” and so on) and each of these strikes me as valuable. The author evangelizes movement and attitude, cajoles, and preaches, all expressed in a vibrant, blunt, intelligent style. For someone like me in the target audience, Keep It Moving is one of the best exercise How-To books I’ve come across, and I heartily recommend it for all ages.
A titan amongst modern sci-fi authors, N. K. Jemisin channels Lovecraft with “The City We Became,” the first book in a trilogy concerning a hideous, tentacled, savagely humorous creature out to destroy the Big Apple. Five New Yorkers find themselves as avatars of different boroughs of New York, and are thrust into chaotic discovery and battle, none of them clear on why they are chosen or what they are capable of. The author masterfully embraces the diverse set of heroes, each so different, each brimming with modern challenges drawn straight from this week’s headlines. The complex plot rockets along, sometimes perhaps lacking a fully laid out storyline, and the creature-versus-kinda-superhero battles pulse with virtuosity. I felt the middle section sagged under the weight of too much world-building baggage, but the ending was solid and promises a dramatic second book. Unusual and arresting.
I missed highly regarded “Capernaum” when it came out a couple of years ago and only now have made amends. It’s harrowing and brilliant and a movie one must see, even if, as is the case with me, its forensic examination of Lebanese poverty and discrimination is not new knowledge. Twelve-year-old Zain runs away from his chaotic, brutal family and lands up with a babysitting job for an Ethiopian illegal immigrant, and when she is arrested, Zain faces the impossible mountain of caring for toddler Yonas. No plot giveaways here but anyone seeing this is already aware of the film’s core conceit, that Zain sues his parents from prison, sues them for bringing him into the world. The world in which Zain and the others exists is harsh, poor, and predatory, and writer/director Nadine Lebaki brilliantly choreographs a spare, horrific plot. Zain Al Rafeea (as Zain) and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole (as Yonas) are astonishingly realistic and powerful, but there is not a dud performance throughout. The cinematography brings cesspit Beirut to life. The climax does descend a note with a couple of maudlin touches, but overall Capernaum is a triumph.
“The Yield” won this year’s Miles Franklin Award and it deserves this and all its other accolades. Tara June Winch is a talented stylist but it is the narrative daring of The Yield that stands out during reading. Three strands are brought to bear: a young indigenous woman returns to the New South Wales property of her childhood, her traditional-yet-modern community; her recently deceased grandfather’s compilation of a Wiradjuri lexicon, a celebration of a language that also reveals secrets; and the area’s founding missionary’s memoirs at the turn of the 20th Century. All in different styles, all fascinating in their own ways. It is of course modern August Gondiwindi’s story that is front of stage, involving the past but also a battle against a mining company, and it is this tale that drew me in most. The other two strands were impressive and informative but also, perhaps, a little distancing. Overall, I commend The Yield, a heavy yet truth-telling novel with resonance in the times of 2020.
“A Shooting at Chateau Rock” is British writer/journalist Martin Walker’s thirteenth in the Bruno series, roughly one a year, and it’s a strong showing after a couple of duds. Bruno is Chief of Police of a picturesque hamlet in southwestern France. Handsome, resourceful, smart as a whip, superbly personable, and a wonderful cook to boot, Bruno is both a quintessential mystery sleuth and a frustrating cliche, and the series offers the same dichotomy. Yes, Bruno’s gourmet meals with friends provide loads of the local color so vital for the modern mystery, but recent instalments have seemed more akin to cooking-and-and-equestrian romances than crime fiction. A Shooting at Chateau Rock ups Walker’s surehanded plotting and the result is a pleasing page turner. When Bruno investigates a deceased estate, he stumbles onto fraud and deception linked to a Russian semi-oligarch, and a complex thread of connections threatens to overwhelm the obsessed policeman. The usual roster of side characters is, for once, complementary and rewarding rather than distracting for the reader. All in all, I can recommend Number 13 as a fast-paced, atmospheric Bruno.
The opening scene of “The Old Guard,” a superhero tale with a twist, is kinetic and suffused with dark, mysterious atmosphere. Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director, unveils a brutal, flowing battle scene in which our heroes, a band of four headed by charismatic Andy (played with gravitas by Charlize Theron), are cut down in a trap and then reveal that they can be reborn from death, immortal souls who have roamed the earth as a tiny band for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Soon thereafter, a fifth, startled team member comes onto the scene, and then the plot ratchets up into a story of a Bond-style villain seeking to “harvest” their DNA. The central conceit of The Old Guard—historically meddling immortals—is a sweet concept and I only wish this movie did it justice. How one might convey the world weariness of immortals amongst mortal humanity … well, that’s the filmic dilemma, for superhero movies are always finely balanced between display and essence. I only wish better lead characters could have been cast for this knife edge task. Charlize Theron sometimes does a fine job of displaying the ennui at the heart of the immortals, only to occasionally seem ham-fisted, and the other four fail to convey immortality in any serious sense. Don’t get me wrong: The Old Guard rockets along, with brilliantly choreographed action scenes of frightening violence, and the unwinding of the plot is sure-handed, so you won’t waste an evening if superhero gymnastics turn you on as much as they do me. But the overall effect is of ham-fisted awkwardness, and when the climax foreshadowed a sequel, I could not help thinking, “no, not for me.”
“The Godmother” is an offbeat French mystery (winner of that country’s major mystery prize). It’s short, mired in details, oddly compelling, and a refreshing antidote to the smooth crime offerings that are a staple of my reading. Patience Portefeux is in her early fifties, works as an Arabic translator for French cops, and is sole support for children and mother. When she becomes privy to wire tapping information that only she understands, something in her snaps and she crosses over to the dark side. My plot description fails to credit Hannelore Cayre with her chief strength, an immersive, matter-of-fact style that suffuses Patience with life from the novel’s opening words. The richly detailed plot, the milieu of the minutiae of the drug world, and a laconic palette grace a one-night read that is sure to delight.